These cultural elements of Palestinian resistance were nothing new. Writers, artists, poets, and musicians had always played their role in the national struggle. The writings of Ghassan Kanafani, Naji al-Ali’s immortal ‘Handala’ character, and the resistance poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, are just a few examples of artistic and cultural practices that resonated both within and outside of Palestine’s borders in defense of Palestine, its people, and its rights.
Such renowned cultural figures are still entrenched in the Palestinian national psyche today, and similarly took Palestinian issues into the homes and consciences of people across the world. The Israeli regime also had no doubts about the significance of this work as it demonstrated with the assassination and imprisonment of many of those who used arts and culture as their “weapons” of resistance; Ghassan Kanafani, a refugee from Akka, was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut in July 1972; Naji al-Ali, a refugee from the Galilee village of Al-Shajara, was assassinated when shot in London in the summer of 1987; Samih al-Qasim, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, has been imprisoned several times for his advocacy for Palestinian rights.
Appreciating the changes facing Palestinian grassroots collectivism and politics since the Oslo Accords, one may wonder what is happening today in civil society within the framework of cultural resistance. To address this issue this article will use Bethlehem as a case study and look among its three refugee camps at the diversity of arts and cultural work that is being undertaken in accordance with Palestinian principles of struggle.
In the summer of 2008, Shira’a Center in Dheisheh Camp hosted one of its annual summer camps. In common with most summer camps within Palestine’s camps, Shira’a’s programs combine recreational activities with programs aimed at strengthening the participants’ understanding of their rights.
Ayed Arafah is a young artist from Dheisheh whose practice reflects his identity. That is not to say that Arafah’s work is in anyway stuck in the past. In fact, far from it: his art represents progression and a contemporary vision without losing track of its roots and origins. Many of his public murals can be seen around Dheisheh and Bethlehem’s others camps but also in the city itself. During Shira’a’s summer camp Arafah worked with forty of Dheisheh's youth, aged between 11-15 years old, to create new public murals around the camp. The murals often seen in the streets of refugee camps are laced with traditional patriotic symbolism – keys, maps of Palestine, tents, Handala, and other symbols of a similar ilk. Some of Arafah’s work follows these routes and he says that often organizers of these collaborative youth projects specifically request such images:
People ask for keys, tents, Handala, the same politics and symbols. For me it’s important to keep Handala alive but we must also learn to work with him in new ways. If Handala is overused then he becomes nothing. We are trying to build skills in young people and create the space for them to think about politics in a new way.
Arafah points out that Naji al-Ali created something new when he first drew his immortal and most famous character; Handala’s critical perceptions of life grabbed the national psyche with both hands. Yet whilst al-Ali knew the spirit of Handala would live on (he himself said Handala was “immortal”) he would also have wanted a continuation of new ideas challenging regimes of oppression. Al-Ali was a man who challenged regimes of all viewpoints in his work focusing on the colonization of his country, but also challenging corruption within the Palestine Liberation Organization and the acquiescence of Arab states. His work never became stagnant in this context, and Arafah believes that contemporary work should also follow this progression:
Through these projects we aim to find young artists and teach them painting skills, provide them with materials and space, and encourage them to think. We provide them with questions and they provide their answers through their art.
Some of the pieces created by the young people of Dheisheh during the Shira’a summer camp demonstrate this thinking. One of the murals which Arafah believes is particularly significant shows a leafless tree with a background of wide blue sea. Colorful fish swim in the ocean, planets are seen in the sky, and a range of different fruits hang from the tree – there are no tents or keys, and Handala is nowhere to be seen. Arafah explained that the symbols used represent different aspects of life gathered together in one place – nature, sea, food, symbols of life and a functioning planet. But the image is also Palestinian – the sea is the wide blue sea of Jaffa or Akka, the tree in Arafah’s words “could be [the depopulated village of] Ras Abu Amar for example” – so the image reflects aspects of life from both the coastal areas and the Palestinian inland villages. In this context the mural clearly represents the Palestinian narrative without having to overtly illustrate the suffering of Palestine or refer back to traditional symbolism.
People (in the camp) liked the idea of the sea. Old people asked us to paint the oranges of Jaffa on the tree, others asked us to paint the old walls of Akka. They understood what we were doing; I think people wanted something new. For me, their reactions were enough…
Arafah says the children wanted to paint images of Palestine and felt that to do so they had to use the traditional symbols but he encouraged them to develop new ways to present Palestine without denying or forgetting their identity. Other murals show beautiful gardens with hanging vines of rich fresh grapes, whilst some children wanted to retain a more direct if contemporary symbolization of colonization in a mural of Israel's apartheid Wall.
The origins of this practice can be traced back to the pre-Oslo days when, often under the cover of darkness, shebab (youth) would write resistance slogans or paint flags on walls risking imprisonment or even death whilst doing so, as the Israeli military didn’t allow any public displays of national symbolism. Such seemingly small actions took great planning and involved significant risk, but were carried out as acts of resistance. Since Oslo, these much simpler line drawings and political graffiti have evolved as the occupation forces no longer target such acts and today Palestine’s camps, and the cities although to a lesser extent, are full of large and often detailed murals that can take days or even weeks to complete. Arafah believes that today “the process is resistance and not the act itself.” He feels the mural is a physical representation of the resistance in people’s minds, and that this process must consider all aspects of its creation including the materials themselves:
We must think on every level and understand our practice. Years ago I used Israeli paints but now I can get supplies from Nablus, or use paints manufactured in the Arab world or Europe. Think about the terrible irony of using Israeli materials to paint Handala.
Understanding such contradictions is a demonstration of practicing resistance within a process and not simply paying lip service to visual appreciation. In a similar vein, Arafah was recently offered a substantial fee to paint a mural on the Apartheid Wall for the music video of a U.S. singer, yet he refused the work:
I won’t touch the Wall with colors. People used to come and see a bare gray Wall and be shocked, now they come as though it’s the Eiffel Tower, like a tourist attraction, they see beauty now and not our suffering…
Also in Dheisheh Camp, the Ibdaa Center is very active and respected for its grassroots work. Amongst its many projects one in particular provides another contemporary take on supporting and practicing resistance with culture. Bad Luck is a four man hip hop group whose music pulls no punches in its defense of Palestine. At a recent performance in Bethlehem University,three of the band members – Dia’a, Mohammad, and Sa'ud – performed their track Tatbi' (‘Normalization’), an impassioned critique of people and organizations who work with Israelis whilst denial of rights continues. This critique was being delivered by the three seventeen-year old refugee schoolboys whilst in the university cafeteria some older and “more educated” (in academic terms only) Palestinians ate and drank Israeli products.
When Bad Luck want to write a new song they research and study the issues involved. Sa'ud recollects the process of writing Tatbi':
It (our work) is not exactly education… it’s like explaining issues to people. About the BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel) campaign – we studied all the issues, the pros and the cons, and then we wrote about this in our music.
It was a new idea. People were hesitant because they thought we were absorbing American culture and its values.
Hip hop is a world language of resistance; we use hip hop to make use of that. People try to struggle in different ways, so we want to work in a new way that focuses on young people. It could change the way people think. In Tatbi' we explored the effects of normalization and its effects on Palestine – we can see results from this song in the way some people now think about this issue.
Other songs have explored other significant national issues such as political prisoners, the right of return and the Nakba, and the 2009 Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Bad Luck also now run hip hop workshops at Ibdaa helping younger children to use the genre to express themselves. Fifteen children worked in these workshops lasting over a six-month period and, unsurprisingly for child refugees living under military occupation, Sa'ud says they had plenty to say:
They wrote about the Apartheid Wall and Israeli military invasions of the camp. They wrote Waseeah (My will) about how they feel and what they want, and about the life for children in the camp.
Areej al-Jafari is one of the Coordinators at Ibdaa Center, and she sees hip hop and other creative projects at the center in their historical context:
Our cultural resistance is because we love it - it’s in our roots. Our grandparents did it through song and dance. It’s who we are and part of our culture. We remember al-Nakba but we also live it every day - it never stopped. Oppression makes people creative, and it is our right to fight as we choose. It’s a way to survive and we will always continue to be creative.
At Lajee Center in Aida Camp grassroots cultural work is also flourishing. As with most other centers, dabka plays a major role in Lajee’s activities but the center's use of another more contemporary practice has created a truly international platform for its young members. Photography began at Lajee in 2005 with the aim of developing new artistic skills through which members could explore new ways to express themselves.
The use of photographic projects amongst young people growing up in various social and political circumstances and struggles is not a new idea and was practiced under the South African Apartheid regime, amongst child refugees from Colombia, and best known of all is the international NGO Photovoice which has worked work with children around the world including in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sri Lanka amongst other countries. The practice has also been widely used in Palestine.
At Lajee, children from as young as eleven up to twenty years old have shown a passion for learning these new skills and for using them as tools of education, communication, and resistance. The educational aspects of this work are multi-layered. On one level the participants themselves learn new creative skills that they would otherwise not have access to. Secondly, the participants use these skills to learn about themselves, their identity, and the world in which they live. This has been a particular focus of the projects at Lajee as the projects are not simply aimed at producing aesthetically pleasing images but at running projects through which the children learn about issues far broader than photography itself.
“Dreams of Home” is just one of four such projects that work along similar lines looking at individual and collective human rights and the Nakba in both the historical and contemporary ongoing context. Since 2005, Lajee has held twenty-two international photography exhibitions in eight countries and across four continents, and published three books of its photographic work.
On the other end of Aida Camp, Al Rowwad Center has also worked with photography, but is possibly best known for its work in performing arts. Dr. Abdelfattah Abu Srour studied in France before returning to Aida Camp to establish the center and run theater workshops with young people:
Theater is one of the most amazing tools of self-expression; it is a way to build bridges that can help people to understand the real stories behind the mass media. We express our rights through our work and the plays express a political message.
But Abdelfattah believes the plays also address a need within Palestinian society:
A lot of people inside Palestine are not truly aware of the issues anymore. The new generations need to study the Nakba and refugee history again. During the first Initifada we lost so many people to Israeli prisons and this weakened education. We now have a Palestinian Authority, and leaders, who do not know how to deal with people on the ground.
Abdelfattah says The Children of the Camp is probably their best known production. It looks into the complexities and struggles encountered by children growing up in the refugee camps. These issues are often misunderstood internationally given the failure of both the international community and its media to ever truthfully and justly address them. Blame the Wolf is a parody of Little Red Riding Hood in which the Palestinians become the wolf – misrepresented, stereotyped, and stigmatized without the oppressors ever really seeking, rather standing in denial of, the truth. Whilst in The Village Close By, the audience encounter a cultural production explaining issues of one of humanity’s great injustices that led to the creation of the world’s largest refugee population – the Nakba.
Not Politics – contemporary art exhibitions
The center runs the usual range of activities including summer camps, art, music, theater, and of course dabka which is the common national-cultural thread that runs among all such centers in Palestine’s camps. Visual arts courses are run for the children and youth who attend the center and their works are exhibited throughout the building. Once every year a large art exhibition is held featuring the work of local practicing artists. Muhannad Al Azzeh is part of the center’s administrative team and is also a practicing visual artist, recently graduated from Al Quds University with a degree in Fine Arts. His work was featured in the 2009 exhibition entitled Not Politics:
The exhibition focused on issues such as prisoners, refugees, and the key symbolizing our right to return. We wanted to say that these issues are not just political but basic issues of life here.
The featured artists worked in a range of genres from classical painting to installation art and sculpture, but all fell under the umbrella of Palestinian rights. Al Azzeh feels the established galleries in Bethlehem only attract the “bourgeoisie,” but the exhibition in the camp attracted more than six hundred people from all walks of society although only two hundred invitations were distributed:
This brings new people into the camp, but it also attracts many from within the camp itself who are used to dabka but not contemporary art exhibitions. Their experience with the exhibit shows them the role that this kind of art can play in our struggle.
The six young artists who exhibited their work are hoping to continue working together as they share a common commitment:
We believe in working as a collective, this is important because one of our problems in today's Palestine is division. We need collectivism and unity. If we can succeed in arts in this way we can also succeed in life…
The Right of Return International Cultural Festival
The Doha Children’s Cultural Center is not located in a refugee camp, although the Bethlehem town of Al-Doha does have a demographic makeup of at least seventy five percent refugees. The Center’s work focuses on traditional cultural practices, such as dabka, as director Ayman Al-Ahmar explains:
Dabka makes the connection to the Palestinian identity stronger and keeps our heritage alive. Palestinian identity is denied today so through art we strengthen the connections with the land. In the Palestinian struggle for freedom, the core issue is that of the refugees, so we should defend and struggle for the return of the refugees by all means, including through the celebration of our cultural heritage.
For three days from late July into early August 2009, the Center staged the third annual Right of Return Cultural Festival at Bethlehem University, which brought together assorted dance troupes and musicians in defense of the right of return. Over 5,000 people attended the festival which aimed to ‘connect the political issues through arts and Palestinian cultural heritage.’ The Doha Center’s own children dabka troupe opened the Festival, performing alongside Firqet al-Funoun al-Sha'biya al-Filastiniya (the Palestinian Popular Arts Troupe), a professional troupe that performs to packed theaters internationally, and who combine traditional dabka movements with a more contemporary dance style in performances highlighting the Palestinian narrative. Such festivals provide a platform to which Palestinians from all walks of society can come together celebrating their heritage and demanding their rights.
The range of grassroots cultural work highlighted in this article is merely a sample of what is happening across Palestine. The work of the centers, artists and activists discussed here all follows principles entrenched in Palestinian society in defense of all inalienable national, moral, and human rights. This includes refusing ‘normalization’ with Israeli organizations, and funding or support from USAID.
Over 60 years ago David Ben Gurion famously said that “the old will die and the young will forget,” but the young haven’t forgotten and neither will they as long as there remains the spirit of resistance. Palestine’s rich traditions of resistance through arts and culture continue to live on today as they always have done following in the footsteps of the likes of Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, and Naji al-Ali.